Earlier this month, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) appeared on the FOX Business show Money Rocks to make the case for depriving the children of immigrants of their 14th Amendment rights. Gohmert claimed that on a recent airplane trip to the Middle East, one of his traveling companions had struck up a conversation with a grandmother who described her family's involvement in a Hamas plot to send pregnant women to the United States. Gohmert summarized the lesson for viewers this way: "We're bringing them over here on tourist visas, some illegally, letting them be born here and saying, 'This is an American citizen. So come back in 20, 25 years when you're ready to blow us up.'"
It's a bizarre story. But the fact that he's prepared to cite it as a basis for American immigration reform supplies some useful context for what happened two weeks later, when Gohmert joined four other Republican members of Congress, including Michele Bachmann, in asking the Department of Defense, the State Department, and other departments to investigate whether the U.S. government is being infiltrated by Muslim extremists.
In particular, the five Republicans singled out Huma Abedin, a long-time aide to Hillary Clinton, in their letter to the State Department. Abedin, the letter noted, "has three family members—her late father, her mother, and her brother—connected to Muslim Brotherhood operatives and/or organizations. Her position provides her with routine access to the Secretary and to policy-making."
In this odd age, partisan hysteria and conspiracy theories have become a common feature of the American political landscape. But the anti-Abedin attack was too much even for fellow Republicans. To his credit, Sen. John McCain publicly declared that the letter constituted "an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable woman, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant." (He also debunked its factual claims.) Ed Rollins, Bachmann's former campaign chief, wrote an op-ed for FOX calling his old boss' attack on Abedin "extreme," "dishonest," and "vicious."
The backlash against the Bachmann Five reassures us that there is some residual spirit of decency and fair play remaining in Washington politics. Still, many observers are left to wonder at the sheer ludicrousness of the implicit accusation against Abedin. Aside from random airplane encounters with Arab grandmothers, where did the accusers get the idea that some sort of Islamist "stealth jihad" is taking control of Washington from within? And how many other Americans share this belief?
As I discovered during the research for my 2011 book on conspiracy theories, Among The Truthers, such ideas have become quite common on the right-wing side of the American political spectrum. At Tea Party events, I often heard speakers argue—usually on the basis of scattered anecdotes, like the one Gohmert related on FOX—that sharia is taking over the United States; and that the White House itself already has become a fifth column in this insidious campaign.
One large right-wing event that I attended in late 2011—held in Nashville, Tenn., under the auspices of the Sharia Awareness Action Network—was dedicated entirely to this theme. The controversy over the Bachmann Five prompted me to revisit my notes and recordings from that day. As it turns out, one of the keynote speakers was the very activist whose 2010 book, Sharia: The Threat to America, has become the de facto bible for Bachmann and like-minded neo-McCarthyites: Washington activist Frank Gaffney.
The conference, entitled “The Constitution or Sharia: Preserving Freedom,” took place at the Cornerstone Church in suburban Nashville, a mega-church with a history of hyperpatriotic stunts. (In honor of July 4, 2010, dirt had been spread over the floor of the church sanctuary, and a professional rodeo with live bulls was held—followed by an indoor fireworks display and then a sermon called "No More Bull.") Not all the speakers at the conference were religious Christians, but the entire event had a decidedly Evangelical tone to it. "We've got to put on the whole armor of God because we are in a spiritual battle for the soul of our country," declared Bishop E. W. Jackson in a blistering invocation. "I don't care whether you're talking about Wall Street Occupiers or White House Occupiers, we've got to do the same thing for all of them ... We're going to win this battle because the favor of God is on the United States of America. This country is not an accident. This country is a providential nation ordained by almighty God."
Barack Obama, claims Washington activist Frank Gaffney, is "sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood supremacist agenda—I think that’s now beyond dispute."
Quoting Isaiah 40:31, he declared that "those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint"—and then went on: "That's the fate of America. That's who we are. That's what we're founded on. And all the devils in hell—all the sharia law you pit against us—will not defeat us. We will emerge victorious! God bless you! And God bless the United States of America!"
Following Jackson's invocation, a former FBI agent named John Guandolo laid out the scale of the sharia threat: The Muslim Brotherhood, with its agenda for world domination, had spread its tentacles everywhere in Washington. "The primary Islamic advisers to the leadership of the White House, the State Department, the CIA, the DHS, are Muslim Brothers ... and thereby, we've surrendered our national-security decision-making process to the enemy." Other speakers suggested that Barack Obama himself had become a stooge of the Islamists, or possibly even a closet Muslim. Rep. Rick Womick of Tennessee got a standing ovation when he declared: "We cannot have Muslims in our military, because we cannot trust them." He also predicted that America would be a majority-Muslim country by 2050, because Muslim men have four wives and each produces an average of nine children, yielding 36 children per Muslim household.
Then came Gaffney, the 59-year-old bearded avuncular founder and president of the hawkish American Center for Security Policy think tank in Washington. From 1983 till 1987, Gaffney was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Nuclear Forces and Arms Control Policy in the Reagan administration. And he remained a respected security-policy commentator on through the 1990s. But after 9/11, for reasons described below, something in Gaffney snapped. And he has been obsessed with the hunt for Muslim fifth columnists in Washington's halls of power ever since.
In this capacity, he has become a strong influence with Bachmann and other sharia-sniffing Republicans. In the Abedin-related paragraph of the June 13, 2012 letter that the Bachmann Five sent to the State Department, for instance, the authors specifically source their claims to a website entitled The Muslim Brotherhood in America: The Enemy Within, which functions as a 10-part educational "course" offered by the Center for Security Policy, presented by Gaffney himself.
"It is fair to say that in addition to the very considerable amount of research [Bachmann] has been doing herself, that they used our material as part of their documentation for what prompted them to write for these investigations," Gaffney told the US News & World Report website. "I've known her for probably eight years or so and ... we've continued to communicate with frequency."
During his turn at the podium, the former Cold Warrior told the crowd that they were naive if they thought the Muslim Brotherhood threat could be expunged merely by voting Obama out of office. In fact, Gaffney believes the Brotherhood has penetrated the full range of Washington's political spectrum—including the Conservative Political Action Conference, the American Conservative Union, and even the Republican Party itself. To illustrate his point, Gaffney put up a long, rapid-fire sequence of slides showing photos of George W. Bush and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist posing with American Muslims, whom Gaffney invariably identified as "Muslim Brotherhood operatives."
Gaffney's performance seemed like something out of the McCarthy era—and he himself seemed to embrace the historical comparison. Like many speakers at the conference, he is a middle-aged man with strong memories of the Cold War. While critics of the anti-sharia movement are quick to brand these figures as Islamophobes, my own take is that they also suffer from a strong dose of Warsaw Pact-era nostalgia—and seek to reclaim the moral certainty that characterized an era in which the world could be divided clearly between good and evil. (This Manichean mentality also helps explain why anti-sharia radicalism has such a strong presence in evangelical mega-churches such as Cornerstone, and on Christian conspiracist websites such as WorldNetDaily: the narrative of Christians locked in a life-or-death struggle for America's religious soul taps into Book of Revelation-inspired End Times mythology, with the Muslim Brotherhood playing the role of the Antichrist.)
On the closing slide from Gaffney's presentation, he put up an image showing Ronald Reagan testifying before the House Un-American Activities Commission in 1947—and told the crowd that we now face a threat even worse than the Soviet menace: "Communism with a God is even more dangerous than it is without it."
Four weeks after the Nashville event, I visited Gaffney's American Center for Security Policy offices in Washington to ask Gaffney about the sharia threat in more detail. Gaffney and I had been acquaintances in the 1990s, when he wrote columns about the nuts and bolts of Western military policy for the op-ed pages of my newspaper. Back then, I rarely heard him talk about Islam. And I wanted to know what (besides the obvious cataclysm of 9/11) had turned him into such a radical voice on the subject.
In our interview, Gaffney described for me a Washington that few Americans would recognize—a place crawling with Muslim Brotherhood spooks about to seize power at a moment he refers to as "zero hour." Barack Obama, he claims, is not necessarily Muslim himself—but he is "sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood supremacist agenda—I think that is now beyond dispute." Gaffney then ticked off a long list of foreign-policy decisions he disagreed with, and cited them as evidence for what he's previously called an "obvious and worrying pattern of official U.S. submission to Islam and the theo-political-legal program the latter's authorities call sharia."
The fact that there is no overt Islamist agitation within the American government, he says, is irrelevant—because the whole point of "stealth jihad" is to spring sharia domination on a non-Muslim society without the citizenship knowing. "Mohammed, the perfect Muslim, established the preferred form of jihad as violent, terrifying jihad," he told me. "But if [a Muslim] cannot do that, he is required to do it through other means. You can do anything. You can say anything. You can marry anybody. You can violate any of the [nominal] precepts of Islam, as long as it serves the purpose of stealth jihad."
Gaffney's current and former friends will recognize the significance of the "you can marry anybody" line thrown into that laundry list. The four words capture the odd, and very personal nature of Gaffney's transformation into anti-sharia warrior. It's a story widely known to Washington's conservative insiders. But it's the first time I've heard it told from Gaffney's own lips, and it's surprising to hear him tell it with so little concern about its McCarthyite overtones.
The tale of Gaffney’s transformation begins many years ago, when he shared an L Street office with aforementioned anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who, as President of Americans for Tax Reform, would become known as the small-government disciplinarian of the GOP ranks. "About a month after we moved in together, [a friend] came to me and told me, 'Did you know that there is an Islamist influence operation taking place on the other side of that Xerox room?'" Gaffney told me. "And I began to learn what the hell was going on—and challenging [Norquist]. I realized that this was a serious problem, certainly for conservatives."
Whatever it was that prompted Gaffney to buy into a conspiracy, he embraced it wholeheartedly. In short order, he developed an elaborate theory that Norquist was involved in a "trifecta" power play involving a conservative group called the Islamic Free Market Institute, Karl Rove's desire to open up a new GOP constituency, and Norquist's own fund-raising imperatives. At first, Gaffney suspects, Norquist's motives were cynical. But then, over time, he began to drink the Islamist kool-aid.
When I asked Gaffney whether he thought Norquist (who, in real life, is a Methodist) was a "closet Muslim," he thought for a moment, and replied: "I don't know ... But I have had Muslim people tell me that when they see [Norquist] in a Muslim-only setting, he acts like a Muslim. He is married to a Muslim woman."
That woman—a Muslim and a former Islamic Free Market Institute director named Samah Alrayyes—pops up repeatedly in Gaffney's anti-sharia mythology, and he seems to imagine her as a sort of Rasputin figure within Washington's conservative establishment, turning its members into Islamists one by one through her husband's influence. The fact that neither Gaffney nor anyone else can point to any explicitly "Islamist" U.S. government policy engineered by Alrayyes or her husband does not pose a problem for Gaffney (nor does the fact that Alrayyes, like Abedin, dresses as an elegant, modern American woman, the furthest thing from a Burka-clad Islamist): by the logic of "stealth jihad," an absence of evidence merely indicates that the Islamist enemy is biding its time till the "zero hour."
Putting aside the dark overtones of the anti-sharia witch-hunt engineered by Gaffney and the Bachmann Five, there is an amusing irony at play here. Norquist is not just any conservative activist: his Taxpayer Protection Pledge has been signed by 95 percent of Republican congressmen (as well as Mitt Romney)—including every one of the five members of Congress who put their name on the Abedin letter.
By the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend logic of McCarthyism—the same logic employed to associate Ms. Abedin with global Islamism through her relatives— does this not mean that the Bachmann Five, too, are in on the conspiracy? After all, they have pledged themselves, in writing, to the legislative goals of Grover Norquist, that infamous Muslim Brotherhood fifth columnist. Should we not be keeping an eye on them—and perhaps even urge the Defense and State departments to investigate their associations with the Muslim Brotherhood?
As with all witch hunts, the daisy chain of accusations never ends.